We All Have Different Reasons

I recently wrapped up the third round of Advanced Strengths for Writers coaching with Becca Syme and it had me thinking a lot in the last few days about motivation and goals. (Next session is in late October for anyone interested: https://betterfasteracademy.com/strengths-for-writers/)

What I found interesting about the sessions I did this time around was that the “answer” for each person was vastly different.

I had one person I coached where we discussed their dissatisfaction in only hitting six figures a year self-publishing and how they didn’t see why they shouldn’t strive for more than that. Given their Strengths my answer for them was that there was no reason at all they shouldn’t strive for more, the only question was how to do so in a way that played to their Strengths instead of trying to emulate an author who I suspect is high Discipline.

With another person we ended up discussing whether any form of publication made sense. They have a day job they love that feeds their Strengths in a way that fiction writing probably never will, so full-time writing has the potential to actually be unsatisfying for them because they will lose something vital if they give that day job up.

I also had more than one discussion about which path made more sense: trade publishing or self-publishing and how each person’s Strengths played into that decision.

So often these days writing conversations are based on the idea that you must get published and you must earn as much money as possible from that publishing. (One I tend to personally follow, admittedly, as seen in my post on mindset.)

But I’ve come to realize that’s not what drives every writer.

Some writers just want to indulge their creative side. They want to imagine worlds and people that don’t exist and flesh them out until they could be real, but that’s all they want.

Some want to be part of a community of creators. They want to interact with people who are imagining these new worlds and to be part of that community they feel they too must create.

Some love to tell stories and even to share those stories but they have no desire whatsoever to commercialize their writing. They just want to do what they want to do in the way they want to do it.

Some do want to sell their stories. They want to master the business side of writing as much as the creative side. But maybe they don’t care about maximizing profits. They want sales, yes, but will choose to write something less desirable if it scratches an itch for them.

And some would love to spend the rest of their writing career in the #1 slot of every bookstore on the planet and won’t be satisfied until they make that happen.

Any of those options is fine.

We each have to find our own path.

I think a lot of the stress or dissatisfaction I see in the writing community comes from writers in one category trying to discuss how to do things with writers in those other categories.

The key is to figure out where you fall and then surround yourself with the people who support that view.

Ask yourself why you do this. What do you want from it? What do you need from it?

Once you have that answer, don’t let anyone knock you off your path. Your choice is just as valid as theirs is.

Finding a Way Forward

One of the most challenging things in this business is trying to figure out what to do next. And it’s something that happens to authors at all levels. There is no point in time where an author becomes immune to those questions.

Unless they’re number 1 in all the stores all the time. Maybe then it’s not an issue. But even then I think that author would wonder or doubt or question. “Do I keep writing what got me here? How long will I stay here if I do? What if I don’t enjoy it anymore? What if the readers don’t enjoy it anymore? What if I’m out of ideas?”

And when you’re not where you want to be, it becomes even trickier. You wonder, have I just not given it enough time? Or am I making a mistake here? Am I writing the wrong thing? Or do I need to improve my craft?

Back when I started publishing, the common advice for fiction writers was that it took three books for a series to take off. Some might take off before then but there were many, many authors saying that they suddenly saw a jump in sales at book three. So often authors were told to just keep writing until they had those three books out and then think about what to do next.

I’ve even seen the advice to not even try to advertise until those three books are out. (Advice I hate. If you’re going to do that, then hold all three books back and publish them close together.)

The last year or so that advice has shifted so that now people say that it takes four or five books in a series to take off.

But…

The problem is sometimes you’re not actually hitting reader expectations and so no amount of books are going to get you there.

If you’re headed in the wrong direction, continuing down that path just makes it worse. Especially when writing in a series because most times the next book will sell less copies than the one before. (Unless the whole series suddenly takes off a la JK Rowling.)

The problem with the “wait three books or four or five” advice is that authors don’t stop to question the presentation or quality of their books when they really should.

A while ago on one of the author forums I saw an author tell another author something along the lines of, “I’m so glad to see how successful you are because it lets me know that if I keep going with this, I’ll be successful, too.”

But I looked at that author’s reviews because I was going to make a marketing suggestion to them (apply for a Bookbub because they had gorgeous covers) and I realized that in their case their problem was quality. There were consistent remarks in the reviews indicating that this particular author needed to stop publishing what they were publishing and probably take some craft classes or pay for an in depth critique.

(I should note here that there’s a difference between negative reviews that say “OMG, I read this book in a day and it was awesome but someone please get this person an editor” which actually indicates someone’s doing something right and should keep going and will probably do even better if they get that editor as long as the editor doesn’t destroy their voice, and “I had to quit halfway through because I got so sick and tired of the pages and pages of characters telling each other what had already happened” comment which indicates a craft issue.)

(By the way, this is not someone I know other than seeing them post online, so no one who knows me think this is about them.  I actually try not to look at my friends’ books unless they tell me they’re doing really well for this reason. I even avoid the books of people who comment here regularly.)

I think it’s healthy to stop and think about what you’re seeing in your own books. Not what the general trend is, but what you’re seeing. What are your reviews? What are your sales? Are things trending up? Are they trending down? Do you get fan mail?

And I think, too, that sometimes even when you’re doing well it’s worth taking a risk and trying something new. I know more than one author who has moved away from their initial genre to much greater success in a new genre.

There’s value to picking a direction and going in it (if I had done so earlier today I’d be writing the next thing already instead of this blog post), but there’s also value to stopping and adjusting and reassessing, too…

 

Let’s Talk Luck

One of my coaching calls this last week was with an extremely successful author. Multiple six-figures and for multiple years. And during part of that conversation the author said, “I’m just lucky, that’s all.” Or something along those lines.

My response was very immediate and very adamant. “No. You were not lucky to be where you are. Sure, maybe the genre you chose and when you published factor into things and that can be about luck. But the ability to produce novels on a consistent basis that meet your readers’ needs has nothing to do with luck. That is all you and your hard work and talent.”

It was an interesting conversation because I’ve never been a fan of the other side of that argument where people who’ve done extremely well say that there was nothing lucky about their success. That it all comes down to how hard they work. I always think that’s a bunch of bullshit, to be honest.

To me it’s always a balance of the two with the hard work taking more than its share but serendipity playing a part as well.

Let me give an example that has nothing to do with writing.

My very first job out of college we were each assigned to a mentor who taught us how to conduct securities examinations. We worked side-by-side with our mentor for about a year. We also had to study for and take a series of tests in that first year, but the bulk of the learning occurred on the job.

I started within about a week of another individual in our office who was extremely intelligent. Fully capable.

But I was assigned to a first-class mentor. Probably the best examiner in our office. And that other person was assigned to one of the worst examiners in our office. It was luck that I was assigned to who I was and that they were assigned to who they were.

And as a result I was provided an environment in which I could flourish and they were not. Luck.

But the hard work I put in to then take advantage of that opportunity was all me. I was the one going after opportunities and eager to learn. I was the one asking questions and working hard to get up to speed.

As a result, I was quickly promoted and this other individual was not. It made a significant difference in our career paths.

And, sure, I can point to how much effort I put in to make that happen.But the fact of the matters is that all that hard work and drive would’ve been wasted if my mentor had been someone else.

So when I think about writing, I always look back on that situation. And I acknowledge that it’s about luck and effort.

Luck happens when the right reader sees your book and helps it go viral. Or you write something that it turns out is in demand with a large number of readers. Or you catch the cultural zeitgeist at just the right time in just the right way.

Effort happens the rest of the time. When you’re writing those books and getting them out there for readers to discover. When you’re learning from your early mistakes and adjusting your plan to account for what you’ve learned about readers or your writing or the market. When you acknowledge what you don’t know and take steps to learn it.

Yeah, maybe it takes luck to make half a million a year as a writer. But most of the authors I know who are very successful in this business (consistent six-figures) also work very hard and very smart. They consistently produce good books that their audience devours.

To do that year in and year out requires more than luck. It requires talent and dedication. So if you’re one of those people, don’t sell yourself short.

Expectations Can Kill You

I’m reading a very interesting book right now called Late Bloomers by Rich Karlgaard. It essentially makes the argument that not everyone is wired to be immediately successful nor are they wired to be successful following the standard path of high achievement in high school, elite university education, and then wonderful high-powered career.

Ironically, because of my first career and my elite university education I don’t really fall into the “we” he talks about throughout the book. But as someone who stepped off that path the idea behind the book attracted me and I think it’s a good read and will probably recommend it to all of my friends with kids because I’ve been firmly convinced for a couple decades now that expecting your kids to attend college and become a doctor, lawyer, engineer, investment banker, etc. is very unhealthy for kids that don’t fit that path.

While the book is interesting and worth a read I’ve been thinking in broader terms about the argument it’s making and applying that to writing. Because I think we have that same unhealthy mindset in self-publishing. Or at least we did when I started out.

There was this expectation that you’d publish a book and it would just sell as if by magic and then you’d publish a couple more and you’d be killing it and able to quit your job and make six figures no problem. And behind that was this idea that if you failed to do that you were somehow flawed or lesser and just didn’t get it. You didn’t have what it takes to be successful.

There are authors who disprove that theory–Annie Bellet being one of them who has spoken about it publicly. She struggled for years before it finally all clicked and came together and she found tremendous success.

But yet there’s still this expectation hanging around of immediate sales and reviews and praise that makes any author who doesn’t find that kind of success feel like a failure.

And there’s a certain scorn that gets voiced at times by some of the authors who’ve made it. Like, “Oh, if only they knew…I mean, can’t they see what they’re doing wrong? That cover. And that blurb. And, oh, don’t get me started on the writing. Who doesn’t know the difference between reign and rein?”

Those two attitudes combined make it really hard to push through and persevere for those who don’t hit right away.

Not only are you struggling with your failure to meet your own expectations but then you’re also faced with this niggling feeling that people out there are looking down their noses at your pathetic attempts to make it. And with self-publishing you tend to be failing in public unless you use pen names and don’t tell anyone about them.

So you either toil in darkness and alone or you trip and fall on your face in front of the crowd. Neither option is fun.

The irony is that an author can actually be doing pretty well for where they are. They can be on the right path and headed in the right direction. Maybe they just need more books out there. Or a better understanding of marketing. Or just more realistic expectations.

But the problem is that no one likes to publicly talk about their failures and struggles, so it’s really hard to see that. Which means to succeed if it doesn’t happen immediately you have to have this gut level belief in yourself that basically defies everything everyone around you thinks.

That is not easy.

I’ll give a personal example here.

I had a Bookbub on my YA fantasy novel a few days ago.

It bombed. By Bookbub standards it was horrible. They said to expect 2,200 sales and I had about 1,000. Not even half of the expected average.

It really hurt to have it perform so poorly. Because I should’ve been able to hit the average, right? I mean, come on. At least close? I looked at the book and thought there was something wrong with it. I thought to myself that maybe I just can’t write fantasy even though it’s my first love. Maybe what I want to write just isn’t what people want to read. I had some dark moments of the soul.

But here’s the thing.

That promotion, which cost me $700, is already profitable after four days. I brought in a thousand new readers to that series. I made it into the top 100 authors in teen fantasy on Amazon for two days.

It was actually a really good promotion. If I hadn’t had that stupid average number to set my expectations, I would’ve been thrilled with how it turned out.

So if you get into one of those dark places where you’re wondering what you’re doing and why you suck so much when everyone else is doing so well, step back.

Ask yourself how realistic these expectations you’re trying to meet really are. As the book I’m reading mentions, reframe your situation.

Look at the positive reviews. Look at the sales. Look at the fan mail.

Or look at what you’ve learned. Look at what you now know about your writing or the market. Give yourself a pat on the back for taking one step closer to your goal. And remember that not everyone succeeds the first time out even if that’s what it can look like sometimes.

A Reading List for Writers

I’ve continued to play around with the new Books2Read reading list option and put together this reading list of all of my favorite writing books. These are the books that are physically on a shelf in my office that I really liked. Definitely not all the writing-related books I’ve read over the years, but the ones I really enjoyed and found valuable.

There were a few that I couldn’t link to because they don’t exist in an ebook version, which I find strange in this day and age. But it is what it is.

I went ahead and created a separate account to do this because I have so many of my own books in my main B2R account, which means pretty much anyone could create an account as an “author” and then put together a list like this.

So, check it out if you’re looking for ideas on more writing books to read or if you just want to see how it works.

A Reading List for Writers

 

Ah, Life

I think one of the biggest challenges to this whole writing journey has been managing my ego. It’s one of the awful little side effects of having gone to really great schools (Stanford and Wharton). You’re puttering along in your life doing your thing and suddenly one of your classmates is appointed CEO of Yahoo! or wins a SAG award, an Emmy, and a Golden Globe for their incredible acting. (Both went to Stanford at the same time I did.)

Or another classmate casually mentions that they sold their firm with $10 billion in assets under management and are now taking a sabbatical to travel the world. (A Wharton classmate. And, ironically, that description may be too generic for you to even identify a specific individual.)

Now, I know in my heart of hearts that their paths are not ones that would interest me. I don’t look at them and say “that could’ve been me”. (Although I do think it would be fun to act. That’s one of those paths not taken for me.)

I know I’m not playing the same game they are. But when your peers have net worths in the hundreds of millions it can make it really, really hard to take pride in your own efforts. Especially when you know that you could be much more financially successful doing something other than what you’re doing.

A couple months ago a classmate at Wharton reached out and asked if I’d submit a class note about my writing. I almost said no.

One, because what I’m doing probably makes me the poster child for how not to use your Wharton degree. (You make your millions first, then you take up skydiving and writing novels. You don’t walk away from a good career without having paid off all your student loans to do those things, which is what I did.)

And, two, because as much as I’ve accomplished with my writing, I don’t view it as a success. Most of those class notes are people who’ve done something worth bragging about and for some reason I don’t feel what I’ve done is something to brag about.

Which is somewhat absurd. I have written ten novels and who knows how many non-fiction titles. And I’ve made a profit on them, which is actually saying something.

There was recently a thread on one of the writing forums where people were saying you should never expect to make $5,000 a month from writing. By that standard I’m a raging success.

(I think it’s a horrible mindset those people have when there are authors out there making $100,000 a month, but that’s another post altogether.)

But the problem is, I don’t apply the normal person in the normal world standard to my efforts. I don’t apply the “average writer” standard. Fuck average.

I apply the Stanford/Wharton standard. I look to my “peers” to judge my worth.

(And then I quickly look away, because holy shit.)

But that’s the thing. The people who’ve made it are in the news or in the class notes. No one writes in and says, “Since we all graduated I lost my job, declared bankruptcy, got divorced, and spent three months in a clinic for substance abuse issues. But now I’m living in a halfway house and getting by day-by-day.” Or, “Well, I got married, put all my dreams on hold, quit my six-figure job to raise kids I’m not sure I even like, and am now self-medicating with wine and Facebook while my husband spends inordinate amounts of time with his secretary.”

I have to remind myself that there are probably just as many people like that in my peer group as the superstars. Not that it helps. Because ego. I still think I should do well at whatever I do. Well being top 2%.

So, anyway. I submitted the note. With a good dose of humor included. And now it will forever sit there next to my classmate’s note about his very successful venture. Really, I think that combination pretty much says it all.

Oh, and for any Wharton classmates who find their way here, the skydiving comment was not in fact a joke. This is me doing a sit-fly over Taupo, New Zealand back in the day.

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